Monthly Archives: March 2011

Who is Marc Prensky? Is He a “Native” or an “Immigrant”?

Marc Prensky

Marc Prensky coined the term “digital native” and “digital immigrant” in a 2001 piece called, “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants” from On the Horizon (MCB University Press, Vol. 9 No. 5, October 2001)

Prensky felt Net Gen or the Digital Gen were better named, “Digital Natives.” Prensky says, “Our students today are all “native” of the digital language of computers, speakers video games and the Internet.” He defines the “rest of us” as “Digital Immigrants”. “Those of us who were not born into the digital world but have, at some later point in our lives, become fascinated by and adopted many or most aspects of the new technology.” Prensky says Digital Immigrants learn – “like all immigrants, some better than others – to adapt to their environment.” But, he contents, Digital Immigrants never lose the “accent.” He even suggests they socialize and learn different.

The “accent” of the Digital Immigrant is described by Prensky with simplistic illustrations. He says there are “hundred’s of examples of the digital immigrant accent.” He suggests that printing out your email or printing a document to edit instead of editing it on the computer gives away your immigrant status. His examples get more degrading and state that this is not a joke. He says the difference between Digital Immigrant instructors using “outdated language (that of the pre-digital age), ” and the native digital speakers as “the single biggest problem facing education today.” Really – the single biggest problem facing education?

I am wondering while reading Prensky’s decade old ideas if I am not reading marketing instead of academic ideas. Is Prensky selling his ideas and merchandising his products? Academics and professional writers used and passed on these labels since 2001, but recently there has been an uprising. Challenges to Marc Prensky’s terms questions the terminology. Prensky describes himself as “an innovator in the areas of education and learning and founder of Games2train, an e-learning company. “The Myth of the “Digital Native”Why Generational Stereotyping Won’t Improve Student Learning Prensky has several master’s degrees from Yale, Middlebury, and the Harvard Business School. Again from his own website, “Prensky is considered one of the worlds’ leading experts on the connection between games and learning.” Prensky is known for combining education tools with game tech.

The innovator is challenged by Fred Mindlin in his article, “The Myth of the ‘Digital Native’ Why Generational Stereotyping Won’t Improve Student Learning” declared that babies of the digital age were not born using the Internet. Mindlin says:

On the contrary, my experience working with students K-12 is that most have a limited understanding of the Internet’s power and potential and lack the critical and analytic skills to harness it for their own uses. In terms of the Internet, I am the native, present since it was browsed with the original Netscape dragon.

So, who is Marc Prensky? As an expert gamer/educator is he an immigrant or a native? Does it matter?


You might be a digital native if . . . Not so fast.

Labels are great ways to organize. They help us to  store messy things in neat packages. Labels are great for files and boxes, but not so great for people.

Jeff Foxworthy used our love of labels to build a comedy brand: “You might be a Red-Neck if . . .” Now, my sons might be Red-Necks. They hunt and fish. We have a growing deer head collection instead of fine art in my living room. However, this label of “Redneck” limits the description of these intelligent young men who have a range of skills and abilities. In the same way, labeling them as digital natives because they fit the age range is also too simple.

My sons know how to play on the internet and find items to buy. They can post on Facebook and text with amazing dexterity, but they do not know how to search beyond Google or how to create a multimodal presentation beyond Power Point.

Some academics embraced the ill-fitting label of “digital native” to the point of following Prensky’s panicked advice to change education. However, Eszter Hargittai in her article,”Digital Na(t)ives? Variation in Internet Skills and Uses among Members of the ‘Net Generation’suggests:

My concern is that by embracing the ill-defined notion of “digital natives,” those who teach this generation (and subsequent generations) will assume levels of expertise and experience–among all of their students–that simply don’t exist in such an evenly distributed way. As a result, opportunities for teaching critical skills will be lost.

Labels used on groups of people are not definitive. Prensky defined digital natives as those born after 1980. The techno-blog, Websimple simplifies the generalization: “Why the 1980 demarcation? Why not 1990? Why not 2004 (the year Facebook launched)?  What about all those super-users over the age of 30, or the technophobic twenty-year-olds?” Labels limit – especially if they are misplaced.

Digital native may be a 65 year-old professor who knows more about writing in the digital environment than her 18 year-old first year student. The “younger generation” may be more comfortable with technology, but they may also lack digital literacy of someone older.

Just for the fun of it from Websimple:

“You might be a digital native if . . . ”

  • If you have ever texted someone to come to dinner who was in the next room…you might be a digital native.
  • If you think flirting should be done in 140 characters…you might just be a digital native.
  • If you ever have uttered the phrase “I wonder if there’s an app for that?”… you might be a digital native.
  • If you check your phone instead of your wrist for the time…you might be a digital native.
  • If you get more “wall posts” than post cards on your birthday . . .might be a digital native.
  • If you use acronyms like OMG and LOL, even when you are talking to someone…you might be a digital native.
  • If you have ever checked to see if you’re in a relationship by looking at someone’s Facebook status….you might be a digital native.

Must Education Change for Digital Natives?

Students born roughly between 1980 and 1994 were saddled with the moniker “digital natives” by Marc Prensky.  There are other descriptions of this generation as collaborative, optimistic, multitaskers, team-oriented achievers and talented with technology.

The Digital Native Debate has two claims: Digital natives exist and education must change to meet their needs. This unique group, according to the proponents of the digital native theory are not getting their needs met by the current educational system. Prensky says, “Our students have changed radically. Today’s students are no longer the people our educational system was designed to teach.”

Watch this You Tube promoted on Prensky’s You Tube Channel:

The second assumption is that digital natives “think and process information fundamentally differently from their predecessors” Multi-tasking is given as an example. While students can listen to music, text, watch television and do homework is not a proof of higher intelligence. In fact, multi-tasking and multi-processing may result in concentration loss and overload according to Rubinstein as reported in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: “Executive control of cognitive processes in task switching.”

Prensky’s Panic Button

Marc Prensky pushed a ‘moral panic’ button in 2001 when he published, “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants.”  Prensky warns, “This is not just a joke.  It’s very serious, because the single  biggest problem facing education today is that  our Digital Immigrant instructors, who speak an outdated language (that of the pre-digital age), are struggling to teach a population that speaks an entirely new language.”

However, others propose a more “measured and disinterested approach.” In the British Journal of Educational Technology, the authors of “The ‘digital natives’ debate: A critical review of the evidence” question the claims about the digital native designation and the implications for education.

The debate over designating those born between 1980 and 1994 as “Digital Natives” is over the main claims made by Prensky:

  1. There is a distinct generation of digital natives
  2. Education must fundamentally change to meet the needs of digital natives.

The opposition says these claims have “weak empirically and theoretical foundations.” The authors of “The ‘digital natives’ debate: A critical review of the evidence” summarize the main assumptions about the “Natives:”

  • Young people of the digital native generation possess sophisticated knowledge of and skills with information technologies.
  • As a result of their upbringing and experiences with technology, digital natives have particular learning preferences or styles that differ from earlier generations of students.

Researchers have discovered that while students were immersed and connected to technology only 21% were involved in creating web content using multimedia. The student’s technology skills were generally lower than might be expected of digital natives. In another finding, the researchers did not find technology experience and skill-sets were not universal among “digital natives.”

In the same way, “digital immigrants” are not all inept as Prensky might suggest. If that were true, how would you explain Steve Jobs and Bill Gates?

“Digital Natives”: A term coined by Marc Prensky – An idea pushed by Josh Spear

Digital Natives according to blogger Jeremy Mims is a term, “coined by Marc Prensky in 2001 and popularized by Josh Spear about five years later (likely with the best intentions).” Mims cuts through the jargon: “But really, it’s just being used as a catch-all demographic for young people, and a way for people who don’t actually understand technology to sling bullshit in sales meetings to those who know even less.”

Meet Josh Spear, the “trendspotter”:

Meet Marc Prensky:



“Digital Native”and “Digital Immigrants” Terms that Say Nothing

Honestly, I was offended when my writing hand was slapped for using the terms “digital native” and “digital immigrant” in a graduate discussion post. I felt it was political correctness rising up, once again, demanding re-wording as not to offend. After reviewing the literature and subscribing to Google Scholar Alert for the terms: “digital native” and “digital immigrant” my thoughts have changed on this topic. Instead of being loaded with socially unacceptable terms, saying that someone is a “digital native” or a “digital immigrant” is not really saying much at all.

According to Russell Stannard in his podcast challenges these terms used to describe a generation. From Marc Prensky we have his original definition of these terms.

I’ve coined the term digital native to refer to today’s students (2001). They are native speakers of technology, fluent in the digital language of computers, video games, and the Internet. I refer to those of us who were not born into the digital world as digital immigrants. We have adopted many aspects of the technology, but just like those who learn another language later in life. We retain an “accent” because we still have one foot in the past. We will read a manual, for example, to understand a program before we think to let the program teach itself. Our accent from the pre-digital world often makes it difficult for us to effectively communicate with our students.

(Education Leadership)

Prensky’s use of “digital native” and “digital immigrant” has been creating an academic debate. Stannard suggests that Prensky is saying very little.

Russell Stannard is the winner of the British Council ELTons 2010 and Times Higher ICT award in 2008. He writes, tweets and podcasts about technology in ELT. He writes “Webwatcher” and manages the website: Stannard says, those who grew up in the digital-age are “happier and less afraid about technology” than those who had to learn it. However, this does not make the “digital native” able to write a blog or post clear web content. In the same way, those who had to learn the technology and were not born into it can write effective web content and learn new tools quickly.

I have three sons. All would be considered “digital natives” in this discussion. It is easier to talk to my 22-year old on Google Talk or Facebook chat than catching him on the phone and quicker than waiting for him to check his email. When he asked me how to create a PDF file I was shocked. He was in graduate school, just like me and unable to scan and create a PDF.

My youngest son carries his iphone everywhere and seldom picks up my laptop. Instead he texts, chats and “Facebooks” everything. When he was designing a brochure in MS Publisher, he was stumped. He could not design a simple desk-top publication without my assistance. They may not be afraid of technology, but they have much to learn.

People my age often apologize for their lack of techno-savvy. However, once they over come the anxiety, they learn quickly and find many tools more effective than the old way of doing things.

Stannard suggests that the great “digital Native vs. digital Immigrant” debate is deflecting the discussion away from the core issue. He is saying that these terms are saying nothing because, “The real issue is about pedagogy and using technology because it is underpinning what we understand about language.” He explains using technology for writing instruction is about motivation and processing information. Web writing is developing language “within a context that makes it understandable.”

Listen to this podcast by Russell Stannard:

Do Digital Natives Do it Differently?

A Facebook conversation with a so-called, “digital native”:

DIGITAL NATIVE: (: age was like I rlly like her!!!

ME: What does: “(: age was like I rlly like her!!!” mean? I am sorry I do not understand.

DIGITAL NATIVE: i have know clue what that means?

This was a real “conversation” between a “digital native” and a “digital immigrant.” This is not an unusual interaction. Marc Prensky might interpret this Facebook narrative as a symptom of “digital native” speak.

Marc Prensky declares that he has proof that “digital natives” think differently.

In his article Digital Native Digital Immigrant Part 2, Prensky writes:

I suggested that Digital Natives’ brains are likely physically different as a result of the digital input they received growing up. And I submitted that learning via digital games is one good way to reach Digital Natives in their “native language.”

Marc Prensky invented the term digital native to describe a generation born after 1980 and the “first generations to grow up with this new technology,” He quotes neurologists as back up for his theory that “digital natives” have new thought processes. The theory is that children raised with the computer “think differently from the rest of us. They develop hypertext minds. They leap around. It’s as though their cognitive structures were parallel, not sequential.”

He further explains: “Linear thought processes that dominate educational systems now can actually retard learning for brains developed through game and Web-surfing processes on the computer.”

The “digital native” moniker is the source of debate. Beyond the debate, “digital native” may not be the best way to define a generation. While some may be offended and consider it insensitive, the term may not mean anything. In the context of the research and the academic banter, “native” is a narrow label that may not be supported by research. Prensky, however, has some interesting points that may apply to people living in the digital age.

“Researchers found that an additional language learned later in life goes into a different place in the brain than the language or languages learned as a child.” Prensky’s conclusions may explain why my conversation on Facebook was so disjointed. I think there should be more conclusive research to make this a stronger argument. However, I can say high school, and college students would benefit from writing assignments that intersect with the way students communicate online.

Writing assignments that require proofing their texts, messages, emails and instant messages would correct lazy writing habits. In class instant messaging and chats might provide a way for students to interact with online texts collaboratively as they have conversations that the partner edits as they chat. Other creative writing assignments involving Facebook Twitter and Email would provide real world lessons for immigrants and natives alike. At the very least, we might be able to understand each other.”